Elite Collusion or Competition?

Peter Turchin


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“I believe Peter Turchin is deeply mistaken about elite competition in modern societies” writes Pseudoerasmus in a comment on my previous post. So let’s strip the argument down to its most basic form. In my post I explicitly use the political (administrative) elites in the United States. So let’s not shift concepts, as Pseudoerasmus does, who talks about elite wealth which is an interesting but separate issue. Let’s talk about the politicians and bureaucrats.

  • The supply of such political positions is relatively inelastic. In fact, the number of elected federal officials has not changed in the last four-five decades. The size of the federal bureaucracy actually decreased. According to the OPM, the total Federal workforce declined from 6.1 million in 1970 to 4.4 million in 2011. I don’t have numbers handy for state and local levels, but I’d expect that their numbers would at most grow with the population size, if that.
  • The supply of aspirants for such positions during the same period has grown several fold. In my blog I specifically mention law-degree holders and wealth-holders, who are two principal sources of politically ambitious individuals. The number of lawyers tripled, while the numbers of top wealth holders quadrupled or more, depending on the cut-off point one uses.
  • Thus, the competition for elite positions in politics and bureaucracy has intensified dramatically.

I don’t see how you can argue against this logic. How could the competition not intensify? Have you abolished the law of supply an demand?

But let’s also look at the empirical measures. Pseudoerasmus dismisses the wealth of data I bring to bear on this question, which is covered in Ages of Discord, as follows: “The evidence Turchin marshalls for elite fragmentation is basically the bimodal distribution of lawyers’ incomes, and the degree of legislative polarisation.” This only scratches the surface. Consider:

  • In addition to the overproduction of lawyers, we see the same trends in the MBAs and in medical internships
  • Tuition at top universities, such as Yale
  • Tuition at law schools
  • Filibusters
  • Judicial confirmations
  • Cost of elections
  • Numbers of millionaires running for political office
  • Unraveling of social norms governing political discourse and process
  • Delegitimization of the state institutions

How can anybody who have observed the 2016 elections can talk about “cooperative elites”? You could see a lot of evidence of cooperation in the Clinton-Trump debates, for sure. And it’s not just the Democratic/Republican divide; both parties are tearing themselves apart. There are deep divisions in the American political class on such issues as immigration, minimal wage, health system, environment/global change, and so on.

The degree of vitriol is unprecedented (at least, in the last century; back in the nineteenth century the politicians actually shot each other, others were brutally beaten with the stick).

Now, Pseudoerasmus, if you have social indicators that buttress your story of elite “cooperation and unity”, I’d like to see them.

Caning of Charles Sumner

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But you’re missing the point. I argued that your idea of intra-elite competition is too narrowly political. Well, in reality you tend to switch back and forth between the narrowly political measures of intra-elite wrangling, and the economic indices of inequality, such as professional salaries, etc.

You could have quoted my comments in full, so readers can judge for themselves. But I pasted my comments here: https://pseudoerasmus.com/2014/04/13/anonimo/comment-page-1/#comment-42887

At the bottom I also provide links to academic research which shows rising market power and monopoly concentration in the US economy — which is, by definition, evidence of intra-elite collusion and cooperation.


You say “At the bottom I also provide links to academic research which shows rising market power and monopoly concentration in the US economy — which is, by definition, evidence of intra-elite collusion and cooperation.”

Have you considered the idea that this inequality and wealth coalescing in the top 0.1% of the population has actually created multiple, fragmented classes within the elite? The top 10% of the population, making a few hundred thousand dollars a year, is one class. That’s mostly working professionals like doctors and lawyers. Multimillionaires are another, including owners of large businesses and high level corporate positions. And then you have the truly tiny amount of billionaires, people who own one or more massive, multinational corporations.

The bottom class, the working professionals, don’t have the power to influence politics with their money so they generally suck up to the other two classes of elite for campaign funds. The cronyism resulting from this leaves the fiscal situation of the country in shambles, and harms the quality of life for the average middle class and poor citizen. This plants the seeds for a populist uprising and threatens political stability.

After that work is done, the multimillionaires or some of the aforementioned corporate cronies can use this populist sentiment to destabilize the political system, uproot what little trust there is left in the government and mainstream media, and take power for themselves. Is that not the definition of intra-elite competition?

Only an elite can mount a campaign to defeat other elites. That’s why Donald Trump won his primary and Bernie Sanders lost his. Trump went in with brand recognition and some cash from the start, whereas Sanders, while he had solid fundraising by the end, had to scrape together his movement from dirt.

To summarize, I think that perhaps the flow of wealth becoming more and more exclusive to an ever shrinking percentage of the population has created a situation where elites will fight for power. This situation was caused, ironically, by elite co-operation in the form of corporatism and cronyism in government, which dealt enough damage over time to make the country ripe for a populist uprising. That uprising, as long as it is done withing the existing system as Trump’s election was, will require elite money to complete.

To further extend beyond the scope of this discussion, this is why revolutions happen. If doing anything within the system requires elite money, it will always be a corporate crony government in power, and thus violence is the only way for the average citizen to take back control.


How can anybody who have observed the 2016 elections can talk about “cooperative elites”? You could see a lot of evidence of cooperation in the Clinton-Trump debates, for sure. And it’s not just the Democratic/Republican divide; both parties are tearing themselves apart.

But Trump just appointed one of the most plutocratic cabinets ever, according to many observers. The same observers have complained for years that Clinton-Obama governments had also been staffed by plutocrats or supporters of plutocracy!

There are deep divisions in the American political class on such issues as immigration, minimal wage, health system, environment/global change, and so on.

Let me quote someone named Peter Turchin: “The work by Martin Gilens has shown that public policy in the US reflects only the desires of the richest segment of the population—the top 10 percent, and most likely the top 1 percent.”


Pseudoerasmus dismisses the wealth of data I bring to bear on this question

I say that those data only speak to political polarisation and do not fully capture intra-elite interactions.

You might answer that doesn’t really matter, since it is political polarisation which predicts sociopolitical instability, in your analysis.

But you never answered my question from some time ago:

In the manuscript version of the book, you excluded homicides from incidents of sociopolitical instability which struck me as arbitrary since i think you included “rage killings”. Did you ever do a robustness check by including homicides in your index in order to see what your spirals would end up looking like with homicides included?


The decision to exclude homicides in “sociopolitical instability” is determined by your theory. The decision to include “rampaging killings” in “sociopolitical instability” is determined by your theory. Your SD theory is predicting increased sociopolitical instability because you’ve chosen to include “rampaging killings” in your index. There is no independent check on this exclusion.

Mike Alexander

However, it is not clear where rampage shooters fall. It seems to me they exist in a regain between clear-cut sociopolitical instability like riots and homicides. It matters because rampage murders are a small fraction of all homicides while deadly riots (those that Turchin records) are a subset of a larger number of riots/demonstrations/political protests. Thus the riot section of Turchin’s USPV database is a proxy for a larger class of sociopolitical instability that is not as easily measured. In contrast rampage killings is an entirely new category. I have extended USPV to the present using a correlation with the Mother Jones mass shooting database. It appears to be still rising.


Peter Turchin is predicting some kind of crisis in 2020 or 2024 on the basis of American “secular cycles” — the cyclical movements of inequality and instability in US history. But even in his own analysis the USA has only 2 full cycles — that’s 2 observations — and that’s not enough cycles (and one of those cycles bestrode the Civil War period).

Which is why PT appeals to the longer history going back to Rome for “more cycles”.

And that is why I keep saying those agrarian societies don’t have the same social dynamics as modern industrial societies. Competing for offices does not have the same importance or salience for the elites, as it did for elites in traditional societies.


When it comes right down to it, your prediction amounts to this: the rising trend in Yale tuition and political polarisation coincides with an uptick in violence most of which is comprised of “rampage killings”. There will be a serious political crisis in 2020 or 2024.


I mean: the rising trend in Yale tuition, political polarisation, AND professional salary…

Joost Douma

I entirely agree to your analysis, Peter. The Roman as well as the Dutch republic went down because of an internal fight within the elite over who gets the largest share of the spoils. I see the same mechanisms here, Joost Douma

Martin Hewson

Here’s a stylized fact:
About two percent of members of the U.S. Congress came from a working-class occupation. About three percent of the average state legislature and about nine percent of the average city council also come from a working-class background.

How do we interpret it?

You could call this evidence of plutocratic collusion (maintaining their oligarchy).

Or you could call this evidence of intensified competition (working class people are out-competed and therefore cannot get elected.)

The second seems more valid to me.


Yes, there is more intense competition for offices. But so what? Plutocratic or oligarchical cooperation in the larger society is the more important story. Remember that Peter Turchin sees an intensified “cursus honorum” in politics as the harbinger of social dissolution! But the “cursus honorum” is only one small way out of many in modern society in which elite aspirants satisfy the craving for status. And if the intensified competition for offices still results in a narrow set of pro-plutocratic policies — something Turchin himself has argued in the past — then what is the salience of the intensified competition for offices?


More violence and social breakdown.

Most people consider that salient.


Do you realise that PT’s rising “sociopolitical instability” index since 1980 is driven by ‘rampage killings’ ? It’s a highly speculative connection between that and competition for political offices !


I realize that. And I don’t find it speculative at all.
Rending of the social fabric is rending of the social fabric.

The Confucians (and others) realized this thousands of years ago. Thus their emphasis on propriety by officials and leading by example.

You seem to think that increasing rhetorical (and eventually, physical) violence in the political sphere would not lead to increasing physical violence in society in general.

That goes against all that we know about human nature and human history.


The question over the rampage killings proxy is we don’t know the precise link between them and the modern mass media.

Many rampage killings have the appearance of a killer with a desire for attention, in addition to a desire to kill indiscriminately.

It could be that some rampage killings are a cultural media phenonmon, and do not wholly represent the underlying temperament of the hoi polloi.

A lot of things about the modern world are unprecedented in human history, just like the non-elites who become elites just on the back of media exposure, as in the case of reality TV celebrities.


It is a shame that in 2016 the highest income earning zip codes were in the Greater Washington DC area when in 1960 it was Detroit. Look at Detroit today.
No doubt there are highly motivated individuals wanting to become wealthy by getting elected, moving to DC, and screwing the commoners producing nothing along the way except resentment. We need to immediately take the money out of DC.
Make america great again by rewarding the producers.

Pearl Munak

I think the commenter is seeing collusion (and certainly there is a lot of it) and competition as mutually exclusive. It seems to me there is both. Super-rich donors backed different candidates in the Republican primary. Didn’t Koch brothers back Cruz? There were an absurd number of candidates (the “clown car”), but it seemed each was a stooge for a faction: the evangelicals, the disguised business faction. Trump seems to represent the latter. Trump will serve the interests of Big Oil as well as his own. In the Dem Pty. groups like Occupy Wall St. may represent the excluded aspiring elite. Am I on the right track?

Ross Hartshorn

Pearl, I am reminded by your comment of what I have read about “chimpanzee politics”. There is lots of collusion between males who want to challenge the current alpha male, whereas there is actually less collusion when the alpha is secure and no other male thinks he can challenge. So collusion and competition actually go up and down together. Good point!

Jeffrey Baker

Here’s what I read: Harry Hurt III, who wrote an unflattering Trump biography in 1993, approached him on his Palm Beach course, whereupon Trump kicked him out. Since he was playing there as a guest of David Koch (both brothers are members there), DK had to leave with him. So, it wasn’t direct and personal, but wouldn’t have happened if they got along.
Side note: after reading a few of your articles, I asked for Ages of Discord for Christmas, and I’m well into it now. Good stuff, and thank you.


US is heading into very weird territory because of its inequitable education system. When the student performance in PISA and TIMSS plunges you will know the new poor majority in public schools has made its presence felt. This is the condition when majority of patents by foreigners already. US is going to become like a neo-Saudi Arabia-by that I mean a country where native born have such low capacity need capable foreigners. I would say US heading to future of a nation of janitors;but by then tech probably will have created a robot to takeover that job, so shall I say a nation of unemployed janitors!


You mention law degree holders as a principal source of elite aspirants. I agree that this is true for today. Has this always been the case? Do you have data on the percentage of politicians having a law degree in the last 200 years?

Maybe there is simply an overproduction of lawyers causing more lawyers in politics?

Steve Roth

Here’s the disconnect I see in this conversation:

Competition for control and power vs policy/ideological competition.

They’re related (B is often just an attempt to achieve A) but by no means synonymous.

Pseudoerasmus is certainly correct (and I think Peter would agree) that elite policy/ideology is egregiously monolithic. The “Washington Consensus” encapsulates that. I put much of the blame for that on Democrats’ decades-long abandonment of full-throated progressive economic populism, with Kennedy’s massive tax cuts for the rich in 1964 arguably the key turning point. The (economic) policy/ideology choices on offer in U.S. elections are ridiculously circumscribed, and ridiculously skewed in favor of the rich and powerful.

But the concentration of wealth and corporate control that has resulted, the winner-take-all dynamic, with ever-fewer big “winners,” has at least quantitatively changed the competition for control and power. There are less true power positions available in government, but even more so in corporations. There are far fewer corporations today than twenty years ago, and fewer big ones increasingly dominate.

Meanwhile there are many more educated professionals who are qualified (at least in their own eyes) to exercise power. And they’re increasingly excluded. I think it’s safe to say, roughly: The top 10%ers used to have power. Today only the top 1%ers do.

So I ask, what measure is predictive in the sense of Peter’s Structural-Demographic theory? At what level does that measure arrive at the necessary-condition level under that theory? (eg., there’s enough snow for an avalanche to happen.)

I think some measure of wealth concentration seems promising, given the eternal correlation of wealth and power. So eg: how much of the wealth does the top 1% own? Or an inverse of that: what percent owns 50% of the wealth?

If such a measure is predictive, it might be explained by: A. the increasing exclusion of “qualified” elites, and resulting elite competition for power, or 2. the increasing exclusion of everyone. Or other. But assume: When that measure reaches a certain point there’s an effect (at least likely). The mechanisms of that effect bear deep consideration.

On that front, I find this construction less than useful:

>the numbers of top wealth holders quadrupled or more, depending on the cut-off point one uses

It’s sort of measuring the position of a line on a rubber band that’s expanding and contracting.

Steve Roth

Sure, that’s the inherent problem with necessary conditions: they’re not sufficient! (To either trigger or predict an event.)

Still, I wonder if a wealth-concentration metric (as a proxy for power concentration?) — if it could even be assembled historically — might not be superior or at least a good supplement to the whole “elite” construction in contributing to predictions.

Slight tangent: IMO this is the one thing Marx got really right, though he never succeeded in stating it succinctly, or really coherently (ditto decades of disciples): capitalism does contain the seed of its own failure: its inherent and inexorable tendency to wealth concentration. Largely capitalist societies can overcome that through government programs of widespread redistribution, financial services, and social support. (FDR proved that Marx was wrong.) Absent those things to redress and reverse capitalism’s wealth concentration, and capitalism eats itself (through insufficient demand) — strangling its own spectacular powers to enrich all.

Is this true in non-capitalist societies, or those lacking the corporate form? I don’t know. But I do suspect that the effects of wealth (hence power) concentration are similar across time and societies…

Ross Hartshorn

Totally agree. One of the main problems with orthodox economics is that it more or less ignores the “Matthew Effect” of unregulated markets. Worse yet, once enough wealth accumulates, the deviations from laissez-faire economics will tend to be in the direction of _greater_ accumulation of wealth, rather than the reverse, because money buys influence.

Of course, something as big as the 1920’s spike in violence, followed by the Great Depression, can bring about a change in opinion among the elite, and they can change the rules to deal with the Matthew Effect (FDR is symbolic of this but he couldn’t have done what he did if there weren’t many others among the elite who supported it). But it would be nice if we didn’t need a shock that big (followed by WWII, no less) to get that kind of consensus among the people making the decisions.

Steve Roth

“laissez-faire economics will tend to be in the direction of _greater_ accumulation of wealth, rather than the reverse, because money buys influence.”

And because — simple reality — wealthholders get more wealth simply from being…wealthy. Self-perpetuating. Arithmetic. Rent-seeking through power/influence (setting the rules of the game) just compounds that inherent arithmetic reality.

Which explains quite simply why no country has ever joined the prosperous rich-country club without massive programs for redistribution and social support.

Mike Alexander

Steve Roth writes: But the concentration of wealth and corporate control that has resulted, the winner-take-all dynamic, with ever-fewer big “winners,” has at least quantitatively changed the competition for control and power. There are less true power positions available in government, but even more so in corporations. There are far fewer corporations today than twenty years ago, and fewer big ones increasingly dominate.
This could be a modern manifestation of what Turchin calls “the closing of the patricate”. Instead of restricting entry to those who are outsiders due to ethnicity or religion entry is restricted on meritocratic grounds (as measured by academic or economic performance).
Steve: So I as So I ask, what measure is predictive in the sense of Peter’s Structural-Demographic theory? At what level does that measure arrive at the necessary-condition level under that theory?
I have submitted a paper to Cliodynamics Journal that addresses this point. The key marker for the secular cycle in economic inequality. Periodically, economic inequality reaches high levels which produce elite proliferation, increased elite competition and state collapse. Associated with this is sociopolitical instability, but there is not necessarily a causative connection.
By state collapse I mean an end to an old political structure and the beginning of a new. In agrarian times this could be because of a dynastic change (War of the Roses) or invasion and replacement of old elites with new ones (Norman Invasion). In modern times it is achieved by a critical election. This is the result of a political “war” between elite factions. We do not yet have a critical election yet. When we get one that will be the avalanche Peter is looking for.
But critical elections are devilishly hard to identify in real time. After all, 2000 could have been one (Karl Rove thought so). But the events of 2006-2008 proved otherwise. 2008 looked like one. The election outcome in 2016 significantly reduces the probability of this, but does not eliminate it (a Trump re-election in 2020 would). So the jury is out. Since critical elections are so hard the use, I employ the stock market. An initial condition is this.
More is needed, a financial panic, and a failure to address it leading to what people finally admit is a depression.
But this is only one route. I fear I may be missing other non-economic factors.

Craig Woods

I don’t see a conflict between Pseudoerasmus’ observations and Turchins thesis – Structural demographic theory agrees/predicts all of the phenomenon that PE is using to critique it. PE seems to think that intra-elite competition is incompatible with an increasingly oligarchic government. He argues that if government increase means that elites are collaborating more successfully. But Turchin also predicts an increase in oligarchy as a _result_ of the intra-elite competition – as they run out of other sources of wealth increase, the elites turn more intensely to controlling government policy. This results in increases in monopolies, and immiseration of the non-elites, just as PE observes. The difference is that SD explains _why_ this is increasing _now_, compared to other periods in American history. This doesn’t mean SD is correct, or sufficient, but it does predict and explain what PE is observing


(1) plutocratic capture is a sign of intra-elite cooperation; (2) “other sources of wealth increase” do not run out; and (3) SD predicts a crisis from intra-elite competition but I say elites collaborate very well in tailoring the political system to their needs and the Trump-Clinton stuff is an unimportant sideshow which keeps the masses excited.


But in my link I supplied further links to academic research documenting rising market power & monopoly concentration.

As I keep saying, your data choices are ***determined*** by your theory, which construes intra-elite competition in narrowly political terms. And it is conceptually flawed because you overvalue the political sphere.

For example, your chart on the rising annual tuition Yale expressed in terms of manufacturing worker annual wage. You use it as a major indicator of intra-elite competition for a limited number of status positions. But the problem is (a) average tuition at universities has risen in general over the same time; and (b) the supply of universities has actually increased (though not enough to meet all the extra demand). And this makes my point: the supply of status positions is more elastic than you allow.


pseudoerasmus is right elites have colluded to capture political power for themselves but Turchin is right that they are now increasingly in conflict at least in part due to an overproduction of elites.

surely these are not mutually antagonistic views.

in the US Presidential election Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton represented different factions of an elite class competing for the finite resource of political power.

Pearl Munak,

Alex Jones was the most influential information elite during the election cycle. He influenced Trump and huge number of Trump voters. the Breitbart.com editor has become Whitehouse Chief of Staff. These people represent Republicans and Libertarians, what they call “true liberals” who believe in freedom of speech, and other essential rights granted in the US Constitution such as the right to possess guns. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street was not, and has never been, a very influential movement, at least not in the real world outside of student campus culture.


My views are indeed in conflict with Turchin’s. Political competition amongst elites, in the SD model, leads to social dissolution, state collapse, etc. I’m saying that won’t happen because (1) elites are largely agreed on the political economy — the margin of disagreement on trade, taxes, regulation, etc. is quite narrow; and (2) political competition in modern society lacks the outsized importance and salience that Turchin attributes to them.

Turchin thinks in terms of the Roman cursus honorum or the Chinese examination system. There is some similarity between those and the the modern system of lawyers and doctors — their supply restricted by the legal and medical cartels. (But the supply of MBAs is not fixed.)

But in modern society the supply of status positions is not fixed. If an aspirant lawyer fails to get into law school, there are other avenues of status acquisition — at least for the top decile or so. Modern societies are not stagnant or static for the top 10% and they don’t have to seek a political position.

Another thing: rising inequality within the top income decile is *not* evidence of rising intra-elite competition. To use that as evidence is to assume a conclusion. According to Saez & Zucman, the real growth rate of wealth per family in the top 1% was 3.4% per year in 1986-2012 — and it is probably higher for the top 0.1%. For the top 10% the equivalent figure is 2.5% per year. This would have been impossible during “structural demographic crises” in pre-industrial societies. Why interpret this as competition, rather than a kind of spoils system in which there is a pecking order of benefits?

The economic pie for the elite is huge and it keeps expanding. There’s enough to go around and there’s no need to fight to the death over resources or status.


I agree there are enough resources and there is no need for an elite fight. Yes, the elites are mostly in agreement of the political economy but not absolutely, and where the disagreement is there is a fight. The mainstream media is on the side of losing party in this fight so from their corrupt perspective it is a terrible time.

It’s very possible that Turchin’s concern is over-stated to the extent that there won’t be a societal collapse and civil war in America. But certainly there is an elite conflict. Many of the current elites are criminals. If they are brought to justice and public accept the magnitude of the reality how they have been conned, then this period of elite conflict will appear to future historians as an intense blip whilst society moved onwards and upwards.

Ross Hartshorn

No matter how big the pie, there are only so many people who have the most of it. If you don’t think that it matters to those people whether or not somebody else has 10x or 100x their wealth and status, so long as they have a lot, you haven’t met those people.

Ditto the alleged “consensus” on policy. There are large differences of opinion about, say, immigration limits or tariff policy or whether the percentage of the economy going to health care or finance need to be shrunk. The people who have the resources (money or otherwise) to try to control the government’s policy, have very different ideas on what should happen, and with each election cycle it gets a bit nastier as they conflict over it.

If 17 major (i.e. Governor or Senator or polling high enough to be a credible threat) candidates for the GOP nomination is not an increase in elite competition, what would you think is? The whole point is to recognize it before it gets to the point of knives in backs.

Pearl Munak

You say that Trump and Hillary represented different factions of an elite class. How would you characterize those factions? Hillary had a lot of business backing, I suppose, and Trump and Cruz had more of the evangelical support that was being exploited by certain business elites. What about the Hispanics? Hillary wanted to continue DACA, Trump cancel it. What about Blacks? What about lower-income working women–Hillary’s affordable child care program was for them. But policy does not coincide with support. So many voted against their own interest. I would be interested to see what you think.


The factions had nothing to do with Blacks, Hispanics, Whites or Jews, gays, the disabled, old, mums, youth or anyone one else for that matter.

Hillary represented the faction that sought pure internationalist, corporate oligarchy and a restriction of avenues for status acquisition through greater authoritarian controls over speech, personal freedoms (association, guns, travel etc.). She represented Old Money families who are trying to keep down the New Money.

Trump represented the nationalist faction of America that sought to retain upward mobility for all Americans. He represented the New Money – not only upstarts like Alex Jones but also many of the list of billionaires Trump has as supporters. This is why Putin of Russia is on better terms with Trump than Clinton – Trump is a nationalist. It is also why British nationalist Nigel Farage helped Trump with speech-writing and debate techniques.

The Old Money agenda to suppress change an impose a managed authority under corporate control was world-wide in scope. The reaction to it has been world-wide in scope.

Mike Alexander

I think that, as a result of the resolution of the last secular cycle, a new category of elites arose, which I call the mandarins (which appears to be an attenuated version of what James Burnham called the managerial class). Unlike Burnham’s concept, these elites co-exist with capitalist elites just as the latter co-existed with agrarian elites in the antebellum era. To a first approximation, the “Red: Party”: (today’s GOP and antebellum Democrats) support the old elites, while the “Blue Party” (today’s Democrats and pre-Depression GOP) supported the new elites. This provides a framework for how elites who would naturally support policies that maintain their economic status ended up pursuing policies that acted against their own interests (Emancipation and Homestead Act). This achieved a (short-lived) reduction in inequality and (presumably) a reduction in elite numbers.

The same thing happened during the New Deal and WW II when the economy was rejiggered to flatten the wage/income structure and so achieve a reduction in economic inequality which presumably was accompanied by a reduction in elite number.

Craig Woods

Increasing levels of oligarchy don’t just affect the non-elites – they also (and perhaps primarily) impact other elites or elite aspirants. Would-be monopolists seek policy changes to eliminate their competitors, who are also elite (as well as seeking policy changes that allow them to increase their profitability). So the idea that oligarchy ==’elite collaboration’ is a poor inference – it treats the elites as a static and monolithic bloc, and concentrates only on the impact on the non-elites.


Well that seems to be an empirical question. Certainly in the antebellum era tariffs became a major source of sectionalist conflict between north and south — tariffs benefited the northern manufacturers but harmed the southern planters. that’s elite vs elite.

You do still have some instances like that. You can say supporters of net neutrality like Google would lose out from telecoms providers who oppose it.

But on the whole i would argue bargains are struck amongst rent-seekers.


Rent-seekers don’t have to eliminate the competition. They can just merge with them.


“bargains are struck amongst rent-seekers.”

Or — even if bargains aren’t stuck, the consequences for losers of intra-elite competition aren’t all that. Think about Microsoft vs Netscape. MS was in restraint of trade against N, so it’s clearly a case of intra-elite competition. Microsoft eventually won but Marc Andreesson is doing just fine with his net worth of $600 million. That’s what intra-elite competition looks like today. The huge expanding pie for the elites leaves something for everyone (in the elite). It’s not zero-sum. It’s not like the Gracchi !

Ross Hartshorn

While it is certainly an important point that competition doesn’t result in assassination of the losers, that doesn’t mean there’s not intra-elite competition, or that it doesn’t matter. If the elite were able to cooperate well among themselves, then the President getting sworn in would be Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. More broadly, the number of incumbents who lost power to primary challengers would not have been going up in recent elections.

Who cares, you may say, they get their golden parachute and they move on. Well, I don’t necessarily think anyone here is worried for their sakes. The question is whether or not intra-elite competition is increasing, and if it is on a course where cultural norms (don’t play covert tapes of your opponent at a fundraiser or in a private conversation, don’t make comments on your opponent’s appearance or anatomy, etc.) are being eroded. We shouldn’t expect to go from civil discourse to widespread violence without transition. It appears that transition may have begun.

Of course, if widespread violence were confined to the elite, resulting in a reduction in elite overproduction, then if we were callous about it we might still not care. But, past history suggests that an erosion of cultural norms of restraint in competition between elites, will give way to one side or the other agitating for popular violence, as for example if they lost the election and don’t accept the result as legitimate. We’ve dodged the bullet on that thus far, in that the disputes have been ugly to read about but not causing any big spike in violence. But, they could, and perhaps will. So, elite competition is worth keeping an eye on, and I think it’s pretty clear that it is on the upswing. Dr. Turchin pointed this out several years ago, and since then the Tea Party and 2016 election have suggested that he’s onto something important.

Pearl Munak

Yes. It is the erosion of norms that alarmed me and lead me to buy a copy of Ages of Discord and given 2 as presents. I am 75 yrs. old and have never seen anything like this before. You mention the failure to promise to abide by the results of the election. There wa alsos the unprecedented filibuster of every major bil and other obstructive measures, refusal to give advice or consent on appointment of a Supreme Ct. Justice, use of fake news and unfounded conspiracy theories, encouragement or failure to discourage violence at rallies, encouragement of illegal hacking, hacking of voting machines to flip votes in Ohio in 2004 (see report of congressional investigating committee), incidents of violence or harrassment as monitored by Southern Poverty Law Center, , failure to produce income tax returns, failure to deal with conflicts of interest, etc. The rivalry between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party was heated, with jailing of editors, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, but this is worse.

Ross Hartshorn

A few points:
1) Peter Turchin sounds grumpy, I wonder if he’s still recovering from the flu or something. But, this doesn’t make his points invalid.
2) I think there’s actually an important point that comes out of this whole conversation (unlike conversations in Congress), which is the need for more objective definitions of “elite” and “competition”. We know more or less what we mean with both, but more precision is helpful. This is not a criticism of Structural Demographic Theory, just a normal part of a new(ish) theory maturing, similar to how “gene” and “selection” are more precisely defined now than 100 years ago.
3) My suggestion for defining elite: not by how much income they have, but by how much they consume, relative to the median. It’s harder to get data, but it solves the problem of how to compare non-plutocratic societies to plutocratic societies. Even in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the inner party consumed way more than the median peasant.
4) “Competition” here means, the elite cannot agree in advance who gets the top spots, and those who get the top spots are not secure in them. So, for example, a CEO who thinks they may be booted by the board of directors in a quarter or two if short-term profits are not good, cannot make long-term plans which sacrifice short-term profitability. A good measure of competition might be how often office-holders lose their office. In one country, this might be by assassination, in another it might be by getting primaried, but in either case it results in behavior that prioritizes short term impression over long-term gains.


To state the obvious, elite competition is a very old phenomenon, and it’s well described, for example, in the literature on European state-building such as Ertman’s “Birth of Leviathan.” The basic problem was how to bind potential trouble-makers to you by economic incentives, to prevent them causing trouble or supporting others. This worked under Louis XIV, for example by the creation of ever more meaningless offices which gave the occupant an income, usually through tax farming of some kind. Eventually, the system just kind of folded up.
Unlike most modern states, the US allocates top jobs not to career officials who have passed entry examinations and succeeded in internal competitions, but to outsiders who have no necessary talent or expertise, and among whom the aspirants greatly outnumber the jobs available. This elite competition. I continue to think that the US will go the same way as pre-revolutionary France, and for the same reasons.

al loomis

they co-operate to hide crimes, notably the invasion of iraq.

David Vognar

Good stuff, doc. I’d just say one thing, about the medical internships, which will lead me to something else. There is going to be a shortage of medical professionals as baby boomers get older and sicker. There is also going to be a shortage of doctors. So what one person can see as a glut in applicants to medical internships, another can see a poorly designed bottleneck that is preventing willing physicians, nurses and care workers from helping where there is a large need. I don’t think overproduction of elite or at least good-paying positions is the only phenomenon going on here. I think there’s also poor engineering. If there are that many people interested in justice out there, let them study law. Then they can make society more just, maybe not all of them at top law firms, but as they create their own businesses, non-profits, etc. on issues related to justice. I think you’re right that it’s counterproductive to value elitism and influence as much as we do. But I don’t think the excess supply tells us that people shouldn’t flock to or study elite occupations. It means they should do this and then redirect society toward what is noble, productive and socially cohesive about their elite interest. Maybe they can’t expect elite employment, but they’d be assisting society by broadening what it means to be elite. Our wage paying employment sector needs redesigning to accommodate the influx of elite skills. This includes the necessity of a basic income.

Pearl Munak

Good points. Yes, there will be a need for more medical care for Baby Boomers, but will there be a demand for it? Demand includes the ability to pay. The passage of the ACA caused health care stocks to go up in value. That includes both health care providers and health insurers, grouped together by stock brokers. Now they may go down with the move to repeal ACA. Hospitals are the main employers of interns, I think, and for-profit hospitals have replaced non-profit hospitals. An investigation of Medicare fraud by hospitals and clinics, prompted by ACA, found a lot of it. Will it continue to be detected? Or will Medicare be cut across the board, as proposed? These factors affect demand for medical care. As to directing new lawyers to legal aid and poverty law, these agencies are poorly funded. There is a need for more medical care and more legal services, but no money for it.

chris goble

Steven’s 9:58 comment about increased percentages of highly educated highly capable individuals reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s old disruptive change theory. Once alternatives become “good enough” the ground is paved for phase change.

Once a society becomes mature and stable enough to support/grow a large percentage of capable people, does societal noise in a decohering landscape seed the grain that starts the negative sum competition cascade? Do we need a “good enough” slope load for cascades to happen?

BTW – I’m not pushing disruptive change, descriptor approaches don’t appeal to me too much.


“It turns out that our society is not that different from past societies. We even are now seeing the Malthusian effect (declining life expectancy of Americans, something that was completely unexpected to me)”

Yep, its one of the currently most worrying trends.

I also wonder about the current data of infant mortality in the U.S. Increasing Infant Mortality in the Soviet Union of the 1970s was one of the indicators that made Emmanuel Todd predict the fall of the Soviet Union,


These maps show the current trends more clearly.


Well, another reason for me to order the book.

I’ve only bought Secular Cycles before Christmas and still only half finished it yet. (Holidays…)

But as for Demographics, I personally wonder how things will develop in two Asian Countries with also worrysome data.

– Japan: a country, whos population will probatly massivly shrink until the mid of the century and is already struggeling economiclx because of this.

-China: whichs one child policy is already called a massive abomination by many demographs and will (and probatly already is) bite the contry in the foot economicly.


“I use more than 40 indicators in AoD. ”

But your ACTUAL prediction is based on a spike in ‘rampages’ — literally a couple more people going postal every year than they did in the early 1980s. And the prediction is predicated on this spike in ‘terrorism’ coinciding with things like rising tuition at Yale, higher campaign costs, increased salary inequality amongst professionals, political polarisation, etc.

The inclusion of this ‘terrorism’ indicator is not a logical implication of your theory — it is a purely subjective judgement call you make to include ‘people going postal’ in the same index as riots and lynchings.

Ulysse Colonna

There are other reasons for the eruption of conflicts than elite competition. In particular, there can be an opposition between the elite and the populace (i.e. a jacquerie ala 1381). A more or less high intensity popular rebellion would be more in line with Pseudo’s point of view than an elite-on-elite fight in which Yale-educated millionaires are jousting each other for a decreasing number of positions.

As Pseudo points out, numerous evidence point to a rise in the profitability of rent-seeking, this in turn is hurting directly “the little guy” and eroding the legitimacy of the political system.

So who’s right Pseudo or Peter? The whole thing rests on the question is the elite’s pie shrinking as Peter believes or is it growing as Pseudo thinks.

Peter deserves points for boldness as the consensus on this question is pretty much with Pseudo. Sure, in the strictest sense revenue from the exercise of political or administrative positions may be in decline. But even a slightly wider definition of “political” would completely change that picture.

If you aggregate the turnover of such industries as policy-related consulting, speech circuit, legal firms and NGOs assuming quasi-state positions, you get a rapidly rising pie. Take, for instance, the endowment size of universities, museums and other such corporate bodies and you are in the trillions of dollars rising fast.

And that’s not even including the lobbying sector! Just to through a few numbers: total lobbying spending in DC, for instance, has increased 80% from 1998 to 2010 and wages of DC staffers have followed a roughly similar trend comment image), while, n the same way, tech giants, companies that did not even exist 20 years ago are now spending to the tune of 2-to-5 million dollars per quarter on lobbying (http://s.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-CM654_data20_G_20140423161603.jpg).

Finally, one could fault Peter for dividing too closely between the political and economic spheres. From banks and oil companies to defense contractors and carmakers, private actors yield a phenomenal clout. A power-hungry member of the elite needs not to ever been elected to office in order to satisfy his thirst for influence. And here too the pie is growing. Pseudo has provided great links to numerous article which support that view and one could add that CEO compensation has been on the rise for 30 years (which does not square with the theory of overproduction of the elite as supposedly if it was so revenue for elite members would decline and not rise).

So with the number of positions and the level of compensation at an all-time high, why would the elite rock the boat? For the rest of us, on the other hand, it’s a different ball game!

Ross Hartshorn

I don’t think I would quite agree with your division of conflicts into intra-elite or elite vs. populace. The core of the SDT theory on that topic is that the greatest conflagrations come about when you have a dissatisfied populace AND intra-elite conflict. This results in one faction or another of the elite (or elite aspirants) using their organizational skills to turn popular dissatisfaction into a real threat to the status quo. For example, both the French and Russian Revolutions, although in theory popular uprisings, had leadership from people among the elite class. Lenin was born to a wealthy middle-class family and had a law degree, and many of the early leaders of the French Revolution were from the aristocracy (e.g. Lafayette).

When there is not much intra-elite competition, or when in any event there is more cooperation than competition, then popular discontent will not be well organized or effectively directed. However, once you have both widespread discontent and intra-elite competition overwhelming cooperation, then you have the conditions for an explosive (and, as both the French and Russian Revolutions illustrate, not necessarily all that productive) disruption.

Ulysse Colonna


By that token, anything short of a pure acephalous class war would qualify as a elite competition conflict.

The most important point remains: rising para-political revenues make Peter’s shrinking pie argument seem unsustainable

Ross Hartshorn

I think the causality is reversed. As long as the elite can get an ever-rising surplus, they can grow faster than the overall populace (for whatever reason) without a problem. However, eventually there will be problems as the ever-growing elite takes a bigger and bigger portion of the overall society’s wealth. This leads to problems in a variety of ways, one of which is the increase in violence (riots, lynchings, terrorism, etc.).

If there is a consensus among the elite as to how to run things, then they will adjust as necessary. It is not uncommon for a (successfully suppressed) peasant uprising to be followed by quiet concessions by the elite. BUT, this only happens if the elite are able to cooperate. They can always cooperate to take more, yes, but the tough part comes when taking an ever-increasing slice of the pie has reached the point of being counterproductive (say, when popular dissatisfaction is resulting in violence that on occasion touches the elite).

If the elite are able to cooperate, they can do what (to take one example) Bismarck was able to do in early Germany, and make enough concessions to keep socialist uprisings at bay. Bismarck was no knee-jerk liberal; he did that for very practical reasons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck#Social_legislation). But the point is, HE COULD. The elite of Germany at that point were marching to more or less the same drum, so Bismarck didn’t have to give them an ever increasing share of the wealth and power to prevent a schism. I’m sure the industrialists of Bismarck’s day didn’t like paying taxes for welfare for the workers, but they didn’t split Germany into warring factions to avoid it. That’s what an elite consensus looks like.

We don’t have it.

Ulysse Colonna

@Ross, thanks for the answer.

We obviously have a very different understanding of 19th-century German politics, but that’s not the point, here, I see what you mean.

Nonetheless, as Pseudo has said several times, evidence of the lack of cooperation among US elites on the big issues (tax, trade, patents, etc) are not forthcoming. There are skirmishes here and there on secondary issues but little more. Seriously, I believe that much should be clear.

BUT, there may still be one way to salvage Peter’s argument: what if we had looked at the wrong scale all along and had focused on national elites instead of looking at a globalized elite battlefield. People like Taki Theodoracopulos have been abundantly complaining about the competition of new elites in Gstaad and in Monaco. One could argue same many of the toys and the positions coveted by the elite are in limited numbers. You can build more yachts, but the number of bottles of Petrus 1947 or of Manet one can buy on the market is strictly limited. On a more evolutionary point of view, the number of drop-dead gorgeous smart girls of reproductive age is not infinitely extensible.

On a less anecdotal way, many of the very limited good investment spots in NYC’s most exclusive hedge funds have been monopolized by non-US billionaires. In many ways America as a country has had to share its influence with other countries and it stands to reason that US elites have had to share their power as well with a bunch of new guys.

Thus the super-elite in the US which in the 50s were pretty much “seul au monde” has had to make way first for Europeans and Japanese counterparts and then, more recently, for Russian, Chinese and Middle-East new-comers. Soon enough there will be South Americans, Africans and Indians joining the gig. In these circumstances, three regions is company, but ten is a crowd. So at least relatively to the rest of the world, the road may have been bumpier for the US elites than Pseudo allows.

If this is the case, before actual confrontation, we should observe two clear trends: a rise in the efforts allotted to rent-seeking from the elites and more speculative decisions, as more risk-taking may be necessary to maintain its relative position. I’ve never seen a study on the level of risk appetite from the part of the US elites over the past, say, 50 years (although the whole Madoff episode may be of relevance here) but the question of increase in rent-seeking appears supported by evidence. I believe it was Pseudo himself who somewhere else mentioned Warren Buffett as the rent-seeker-in-chief looking actively for companies with a “moat”.

Regarding the sense of the causality, you’re making a fair point, however, I think that we are very very very far from what we could qualify as “peak elite” in the US. Yes some trends are worrying but we are still far from the life expectancies or the living standards of, say, 1917… The elite still can drill for more of the little guy’s money, they’re not running out of that any time soon


Ulysse Colonna,

Yes, exactly. My alternative to “intra-elite competition” is quite simple — intra-elite competition is a function of the growth of the total pie. It heats up when the pie is fixed or is shrinking; when the pie is increasing, elites don’t need to compete.

I will write a critique of Ages of Discord in a blog post in the near future, conceptually and empirically. So far I’ve restricted myself to comments, because a critique of SDT applied to modern societies is not a priority. There are other fish to fry. PT has a cult following but it’s not mainstream. Besides, I admire his previous work tremendously but I just wished he had written a Chinese Secular Cycles this time around.

Steve Heise

A difficulty is distinguishing between political and money power. The last election was arguably between two New York billionaires. While the Clinton wealth has been listed at about $140 million, they control a billion-dollar foundation.
Within a month after the election, Australia ceased its decade-long contributions that had been averaging over $8 million per year, and Norway slashed its contribution from $20 million to just over $4 million. Note that these are foreign governments, not individuals. These are real consequences to the wealth and power for the elite faction which failed to win the presidency.

Steve H.

: Just 62 people now own the same wealth as half the world’s population, research finds


I am uncertain how to interpret the graph in this article. The tenor of the article concerns growing inequality, but it can be interpreted as overall growing wealth being distributed less top-heavy, as in spread out among more billionaires. Any thoughts?

chris g

Just thinking about another possible theoretical approach to the inter-elite competition question, one based upon group size simulations in the domain of self-interest/altruism (Richerson, Boyd & Cordes stuff)…

D.S. Wilson did some casual work a number years back on self-interest vs. group-interest in religions. His casual findings were that religions had morals that were win-win at the self & group level (e.g. love, sacrifice…) or lose-lose (e.g. greed, pride…). There were no mixed cases (things which were good for self but bad for the group or vice versa). He then took a look at an imagined case where self interest was considered an ideal – Atlas Shrugged :). While certainly tongue-in-cheek, self-interest as good also had no mixed cases. The poles just switched (greed was good for self & group while sacrifice was bad for self & group).

When you add in group size simulation findings which suggest moderate “corruption” is necessary for large group size, you get some interesting possibilities. Small groups, like elites, are stable with either high or low “corruption”. Large groups, like commoners, are stable with mixed amounts of “corruption”. This spits out a relatively small sample space for analysis, filtered due to stable size considerations.

Throw in some analysis about migration effects, and cultural transmission bias, and I wonder if you can’t get some vague notions about how competition goes relative to the binary moral states Wilson mentioned? For instance, altruistic elites probably don’t compete against each other much, while self-interested ones probably do (in addition to feeding off commoners).

My supposition is that elite classes have short term stability with altruistic morals and mid-term stability when they’re self-interested. But, once they flip to / remain at self-interest, commoners are biased in that direction. This leads to a theoretical population catastrophe (large groups are stable with moderate corruption, not high corruption). In this wildly speculative approach, the lag time in SDT may be from cultural bias transmission delays or some other such thing.

Of course this doesn’t answer whether elites are intra-competitive or not… good conversation just inspires inquisitiveness….


Rich Howard

Peter’s thesis concerns political elites NOT financial elites. Yes the economic pie is increasing, but these barrons don’t have their own hands on law making or war making. The better indicator of a coming civil war is political not financial elite discord. How well the proxies measure this is really the only relevant question.


I’m having an issue. If competition among elites is becoming more intense how come we are not seeing highly qualified candidates rise to the top of the competitive stew. Literally millions of American men have more character and more going on upstairs than Trump will ever have. The number of American men who could do a better job leading the nation is countless. Hillary was totally out of touch with the needs of average Americans and is a queen of failed states. She is a nightmare of a different kind.

IMHO opinion both major candidates were eminently unqualified to lead the nation. I voted for a third party because there was no way could I vote for either Trump or Clinton. Increased competition should produce more qualified candidates as a result of a more intense selection process but that is not what we are seeing. Instead candidates appear to be less able to lead as time goes on. I suggest that the complexity of our civilization has reached a point where elites can’t rise to the occasion because they are too locked into old ways of thinking and doing things that they can’t embrace the novelty necessary to redesign the system so it continues to work. If I am correct the total number of elites may be increasing in number yet the number of elites who can rise above and look down with a clear understanding of what is happening in our world is actually shrinking.

Please explain how a larger competitive pool of elite candidates can actually select for less qualified candidates.

The statement that:

“Excessive elite competition, on the other hand, results in increasing social and political instability”.

Does not make sense to me. I’m not seeing why this should be.

Ross Hartshorn


I think that competition among elites does not necessarily result in better leaders rising to the top, for a couple reasons. One, an old guard of elites often wants to preserve the old order, and rallies around someone who isn’t necessarily all that talented, to fend off a challenge. For example, trying to preserve Louis XVI even though he probably wasn’t the best leader. Both George and Jeb Bush were pretty obviously not the people with the most raw talent and charisma.

Secondly, though, and more importantly, talent at getting power isn’t necessarily the same as talent for using it well. Trump is actually a pretty talented salesman, and his skill at using modern media (including, but not only, Twitter) to keep the spotlight on himself was something none of his rivals could match. HRC may not seem as talented, but her ability to do fund-raising for the campaign was actually highly polished, and her campaign got a pretty huge amount of money raised. I’m sure there are lots of skills involved in that, which neither you nor I are aware of, and I think the prospect of going up against her “war chest” of funds discouraged several would-be rivals on the Democratic side. In fact, the amount of money raised for campaigns (not only Presidential) is one metric for how competitive intra-elite competition is right now, and it’s at record levels.

So, just as a skill for assassination and battlefield leadership (back in the day) was a good route to power but not a great indicator of being able to use it wisely, I think Trump and HRC are actually very good at what they do, it just isn’t what we want them to be doing.


Thank you Ross, that is a good explanation and history has certainly shown that the ability to get power and the ability to use it well often do not go together.

Perhaps as elites are surrounded by more and more elites as time goes by they become ever more isolated and out of touch with what is really going on in the world as their peer group increases in size and dominates their consciousness ever more as time passes.

This would increase approval seeking mediocrity among the elites so while there are more elites in total, the ones who finally rise to leadership positions and are able to think for themselves are smaller in number. Increased competition among elites could lead to selection of people who are more purely ‘elitist’ in their thinking and consequently less able to lead because their view of the world is distorted by an elite perspective.

This is not a good thing in an overpopulated world that is running out of resources and burning oil like there is no tomorrow. Our elites currently have a very unhealthy interest in Ray Kurzweil ‘singularity’ and are currently tuning away from real world issues as they anticipate the ‘singularity’ and the eternal life that comes with it. Technology is being worshiped as a religion which will solve all problems by our current crop of elites. Our elites seem to be getting more out of touch with reality as time passes as their bubble of ignorance grows along with their population count.

A relevant question is to ask is if competition among elites is growing what is this increased competition selecting for?

It is certainly not the ability to lead in any way that matters.

Ross Hartshorn

“A relevant question is to ask is if competition among elites is growing what is this increased competition selecting for? ”

Well, it’s a great questin, K-Dog, and I can’t say I’ve thought about it a lot yet. However, one thing I’ve seen in business is that as competition becomes more intense (and profit margins decrease), emphasis on R&D drops. This is part of a general shift in emphasis from long-term to short-term priorities. In order to spend on the long-term (e.g. in R&D), you have to be able to survive long enough to be around for that long term. If a CEO thinks that a higher R&D expenditure will get him booted in a quarter or two, then there’s no point in spending on something that may pay off in 5 years. Increased competition, in this case, seems to mean more short-term thinking.

I see a parallel in elite political behavior, in the increased polarization. Violating customs of decorum may make it harder to govern, but that is a long-term concern that only matters if you get there. With increased problems of getting through the primary, much less winning the election, any concerns related to how you will govern after you win the election become deprioritized, and the ones who deprioritize it the most will be selected for, I think.

This isn’t a proof of anything, just my first take on the question, but certainly I see nothing in recent events that causes me to think otherwise.

It should be admitted, that an increased concern for the short-term is sometimes the rational response. Not every prioritizing of long-term over short-term is correct. But I think perhaps an excess of short-term over long-term prioritization is the problem we have more of lately.

chris g

Ross, I wonder to what extent the physics of short-term long-term prioritization are similar to the physics of multi-level selection (specifically group level vs. individual level)? While analogies can be over-extended, group-oriented altruism does, in many cases, seem to be a longer-term bet than self-interest.

So I wonder if elite competition isn’t fundamentally a result of tensions within levels of selection?

So why a periodic phase change? Perhaps there’s a very slight preference in the population toward a higher level of selection? Eventually this slight preference deterministically overshoots the basic conditions necessary for higher level stabilization (extreme dependency, coordination, competition suppression)?

Ross Hartshorn

chris g,

I think your point is a good one. More evidence for this would be if an increase in inter-group competition (e.g. war or the threat of it) resulted in less intense intra-group competition. I think there’s probably good evidence for such an effect, but I can’t say that I have any data on that myself.

In the extreme, an excess of intra-elite (within group) competition can definitely result in that group going extinct (either as an elite ruling class or as a society generally) if it happens during conflict with another society, so I could see it as a method of higher-level selection. Again, though, I don’t actually know of a database of how many societies that were wiped out in violent conflict, had above-average levels of within-group intra-elite conflict at that time, so while it seems plausible to me I don’t know of a dataset to test it against (yet).

Mike Alexander

K-dog. I think the problem is you are thinking of elite competition as between individual elites. There is this, but also competition between groups of elites, e.g. Democrats vs. Republicans.

steven t johnson

Well, it still seems to me that immigration of elites should at least be ruled out as insignificant before being neglected.

On the issue of political violence, external warfare should not be omitted I think.

And on the issue of the fiscal crisis of the state, infrastructure spending on necessities (or lack thereof) and the value of the currency and state debt held by foreigners seem to be entirely relevant issues to me. Admittedly they are hard to deal with.

But in one way one of the most problematic things is the tacit assumption the only reason for interelite strife is excess numbers chasing too few positions. Politics is also policy. A pseudoerasmian conviction that government action is a cloak for rent seeking may be good libertarianism (Leninism?) but surely part of the issue is differences over policy. And the further tacit assumption that of course there’s a rational policy available is not at all a safe assumption to make, I think.

Guillaume Belanger

Excellent reply!

Craig Woods

One of the clearest anec-data points I see in support of this thesis is the 30+ year, multi-billion dollar propaganda effort by the Koch brothers (and like-minded elites) to undermine the legitimacy and function the federal government. Their practical goal is enrich themselves by limiting regulations on air pollution, since their fortunes drive from coal power plants. They have funded political candidates, grass roots orgs, and think tanks to mainstream any ideas that will weaken central government: ‘government is the problem’, ‘free market solutions are superior to government solutions’, and ‘climate change is a hoax’ to name a few. That their political philosophy never progressed beyond Ayn Rand only compounded their commitment to destroying the power the central government.

This campaign has been remarkably successful tactically – the Freedom Caucus is effectively their faction, popular sentiment has incorporated their message, and the federal government has been almost completely neutralized at this point.

This is a classic case of an elite mobilizing masses against the government, resulting in political dysfunction and social unrest, in order secure economic advantage.

Trump’s election was _not_ part of their plan, since he doesn’t subscribe to their creed, but he was a result of their machinations. He exploited the anti-government sentiment that they had cultivated, capturing (probably temporarily) the proletariat that was increasingly discontented with their immisseration.

There are other factions supporting neo-liberal globalization, which have also been working to reshape the government, but they generally try to use Federal power implement their agenda at a trans-national scale, so they are actually in conflict with the Market Libertarians, though they seek some of the same objectives (i.e. reduced regulations)

Craig Woods

Actually, that _was_ my point: “Trump’s election was _not_ part of their plan, since he doesn’t subscribe to their creed, but he _was_ a result of their machinations.”

The Koch’s have been systematically fomenting popular discontent with the federal government for their own purposes. However, they don’t _directly_ control the discontent, and Trump was able to steal their mob with his showmanship and bullsh**…

Since Congress will give them what they need with Trump in congress (evisceration of the EPA), they won’t cry too hard, I suspect…

steven t johnson

By the way, just finishing Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, ran across this on inter-elite competition:

“Here we see that in tranquil times republics are subject to the infirmity of lightly esteeming their worthiest citizens. And this offends these persons for two reasons: first, because they are not given the place they deserve; and second, because they see unworthy men and of abilities inferior to their own, as much or more considered than they. Injustice such as this has caused the ruin of many republics. For citizens who find themselves undeservedly slighted, and perceive the cause to be that the times are tranquil and not troubled, will strive to change the times by stirring up wars hurtful to the public welfare.When I look remedies for this state of things, I find two: first, to keep the citizens poor, so that wealth without worth shall corrupt neither them nor others; second, to be so prepared for war as always to be ready to make war; for then there will always be a need for worthy citizens, as was the case in Rome in early times.”

“worthiest citizens”=wealthy and “poor”=”middle class” as the ideology has it, I think in the modern recension

Edward Turner

That’s interesting Steven thanks for the excerpt! The times have very rarely been peaceful in matters of foreign policy for the US Republic over the last 100 years and many of those foreign wars were lost and had an impact on public opinion e.g. Vietnam. It is true that domestically the US has not been invaded – except by illegal migrants. Interesting therefore that Trump is building a wall along the border with Mexico – perhaps doing this will make the American middle classes respect their worthiest citizens again.


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I just stumbled into this blog while randomly casting about on the net for entertainment. I’ve enjoyed Peter Turchin’s books, and so I’m a little familiar with all of this.

Just a fast comment. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the posts and they seem to be well thought out, but one underlying flaw (I think) that is in a lot of these discussions is the conflation of individuals and individual activity with mass social and economic behavior. It seems to me that the latter is the best sandbox for any kind of modeling and predictive values for cliodynamics.

The moment I see ‘Trump’ or ‘Hillary’ or ‘Koch’, I can’t see the value of the following statement. Individuals provide fairly random inputs into the system and although they can be used as examples to illustrate a point, I think that you are muddying the water if anything. Discussions that stick to verifiable data sets derived from groups of people are not only more valuable but also stay away from emotional attachments to personalities.

Back to my lurker status.

Pearl Munak

Well said.

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Adoraria que você prestasse BASTANTE atenção nessa sexta prelecção, porque ela melhorou especialmente os ganhos com meu diário

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